December 23, 2020 Last updated January 17th, 2022 1,073 Reads share

Working Like a Mule: How to Survive Occupational Burnout

Image Credit: DepositPhotos

Working with people is considered one of the most energy-consuming jobs. If you find yourself under the constant pressure of working responsibilities even outside the office, you run the risk of “burnout”. Project Manager from a software engineering company NIX, Marina Varasova, explains how to recognize professional burnout and cope with the popular disease of all workaholics.

I’d like to start with an unusual analogy. Try to recall what a mule looks like. An unappealing and dull little donkey can carry on its back up to 110% of its own weight or plow the ground for 10 hours non-stop. Seemingly fragile animals, spend most of their time working hard. Confidently and reliably. However, even mules can feel exhaustion. As do people sometimes.

One day you can find yourself working non-stop, devoting to your job most of your time, energy, and other resources. Modern psychologists call this state burnout. What happens next? The ‘disease’ results in low-quality performance and leads to an emotional drain.

Waking up Already Tired

Burnout arises from chronic stress. Endless force majeure, deadlines, and overtime, in addition to, routine activities – all these things take away energy and personal resources, cumulate fatigue, and trigger the feeling of emptiness. First, you think that you just have to get a bit more sleep or go out on the weekend. But once you return to the working environment, the unpleasantness returns.

Among doctors, burnout syndrome has gone through a stage of an unreal speculative disease and turned into a serious medical case. In 2019, the World Health Organization added the diagnosis into the International Classification of Diseases.

How To Recognize Professional Burnout

Over the eight years of working in project management, I have become convinced that when ordinary rest does not help, it is high time to understand the root causes of burnout and try to recharge. Let’s find out how our behavior can lead to professional burnout. 

You Act in a Non-Reflexive Way

The workflow becomes formal and automatic. You perform all your tasks mechanically: you come, you work, you go home. It looks like you are building up an invisible wall around you to protect yourself from any experiences and turn on protective mechanisms for saving your already depleted resources.

Your Professional Success Doesn’t Inspire

It seems that the bottom line is not really worth all the effort: any recognition seems alarming, accomplishments do not bring joy. Being burnt out devalues your successes.

The Feeling of Hopelessness Surpasses All Other Feelings

Increasingly, you ask yourself a question: “Why do I do this at all?” You doubt the correctness of your actions and do not see the prospects for development. As a result, job satisfaction is reduced. It seems impossible to leave for another organization or change the field of activity. You think, as a specialist, you are not in demand. But if there was an opportunity to change the environment, you would gladly take it.

As soon as you notice at least the first signs of these states of mind, try to pay more attention to yourself.

There are several stages of professional burnout. The first is the lightest. At this stage, it is rarely possible to determine that a mule is already stumbling on the move. Here are just some of the indicators of the major stages: 

Minor Mistakes in Work

You missed the call, added the wrong date of the meeting in the calendar, sent the report too late. It seems this could happen to everyone. In fact, this is already the first alarm bell of burnout.

Decreased Interest

You are no longer mistaken, but only because you are not doing anything. You are playing a shooter game on the computer and you cannot switch to work. Reports are on fire and you are procrastinating.

Personal Burnout

You don’t want anything at all. The only thing you need is for everyone to leave you alone. If you want to be able to focus without being bombarded with constant communication, you can use an emergency text notification solution that will alert you if a crisis emerges, but you won’t be bothered otherwise.

Five Steps To “Rise From the Ashes”

It’s crucial to keep in mind that burnout is not a permanent condition. There are ways that lead out of this state. If you’re ready to follow these steps, your job can bring you satisfaction and joy again. 

1. Understand the Problem

Day after day, the first thing you do waking up is diving into your project’s chats, then you stay late at work, overtime and the last thing you do when going to bed at night is checking those numerous project chats. “I can stop any time,” you think so, but still continue. A first step to get rid of a problem is to accept it. There is always a way out, but to get on it, you need to realize you need it.

2. Get Some Rest

When noticing the first signs of a cold, we don’t feed ourselves antibiotics, but let the body fight the virus itself. Vacation or a day off acts like immunity and allows the body to naturally fight burnout.

We are bombarded with push notifications, messages, and stories on social networks, constant conferences, festivals, parties. Everything seems important. You must have heard of the fear of missing something, FOMO —  a syndrome of lost profit. People attach great importance to other people’s activities instead of focusing on themselves. Now psychologists promote the opposite phenomenon — JOMO (Joy of missing out). Do not be discouraged that you have no strength to go to the party and you want to stay at home. Rejoice – you heard your body! Say “thank you” to yourself, and the body will respond with a charge of vigor.

3. Find Non-Standard Aspects in Your Usual Work

If it is not possible to radically change your activity, bring something new to your current job. Attend professional workshops, take on new or unusual tasks, become a mentor for beginners.

I’ll fill you in on the experience of one of my tech leads. He worked on the project for a long time, knew every symbol in the code, studied the business logic of the product up and down. At some point, he got bored. Then he began to invent tasks for himself. Before starting work on a new feature, he made a bet with himself: “Testers will not find a single bug in it.” Later he volunteered to independently conduct demo sprint results for clients. Then he made a training plan for beginners so that the threshold for entering the project was minimal.

What’s the conclusion? It is worth expanding the horizon of attention a little, as the most routine work will sparkle with bright colors.

4. Discover New Talents

Occupied in office management? Try to switch to organizing events. Are you into coding? Try to take managerial responsibilities. Business benefits from happy employees. They work productively and set a good mood for the whole team. Giving a person new opportunities for career and personal growth is what will breathe life into him.

For those wishing to change their place of employment or a business niche, I would recommend you to study the market of popular domains, think about what your soul is in. Also, creativity always helps to reboot the brain. Draw, sing, dance, sculpt, invent — this is the best way to relax.

5. Visit a Therapist

If professional burnout adversely affects your personality and nervous system, you become irritable, lost interest in life — contact a specialist. Consider long-term collaboration. You will better understand yourself and determine the path for further development.

How To Rescue a “Burning” Team

In addition to our personal burnout, we can push our teams into this condition. Let’s imagine a workaholic manager. He is used to overtime and overdo and expects others to do the same.  Or the client can be pushy, and the PM under his command forgets to take care of his team. Do faster and more doesn’t always mean do better. In the pursuit of efficiency, regular overtime is bad for everyone. The mission of management is to sensibly prioritize, highlight the company’s goals, and translate them to employees. The motivation of people depends on the accuracy of the task.

To illustrate what I mean I will tell you a parable. Once a builder was asked: “What are you doing?” He replied, “I carry this damn wheelbarrow with bricks all day.” People approached his colleague and asked the same thing, and he said “I earn money for the family.” The third builder was asked too, and he said: “I am participating in the construction of a beautiful temple.” All of them performed a common task but treated it differently. Each of them had his own feeling from the work they did. Naturally, building a temple is more pleasant than moving a pile of stones from place to place.

So to treat your work like not so much as a burden, you need to see the sense in it.

Improve the Conditions of Work

Medical and legal support, lunch delivery, comfortable office — all this adds to the employee’s confidence that his needs are not ignored.

Distribute Responsibilities Wisely

When, in addition to their current duties, an employee is charged with additional duties, he can burn out just from the scope of work. At first, minor errors will appear, later the shortcomings will become systemic and can lead to global problems. In the worst-case scenario, the person will not stand it and quit.

Develop Motivation Systems

Material motivation is valid up to a certain point. When a person has satisfied all the basic needs, he wants interesting tasks, recognition from colleagues, and leadership. If the company does not provide opportunities for professional growth, monetary motivation alone is not enough.

The team must understand that it is not just writing pieces of code, but doing something cool, something that will really improve someone’s life. The purpose of the work must be visible. Discuss it with your colleagues, visualize it if necessary. Make each participant aware of their personal contribution to the project.

Plan the Professional Promotion of Employees

Solving new challenges, we develop as specialists and personalities, we become wiser. What if you hit the glass ceiling and there is nowhere else to grow? Sometimes managers need to stop thinking within one project and to start thinking within the whole company. If your employee has reached the ceiling and wants to grow further, maybe it is worth letting him go over to another project, and not keeping him by your side until he gets worn out.

Rotate Staff

Without switching between tasks and participating in new projects, the specialist will sooner or later get bogged down in a routine, get bored, and lose interest in the profession. Situations like this often arise in startups, where the possibilities of “vertical” growth are a priori limited. The recipe for a manager is simple – to move employees “horizontally.” Rotate or reallocate projects from time to time among team members.

Avoid Negative Mood

A good team can be proudly called a second family. In a friendly atmosphere, you trust people, you feel support. The opposite situation is when there is bullying in the team. Because of a bad attitude, you don’t want to be in such a society, and you quickly burn out from working in it.

Evaluate Work Constructively

Monitor employee engagement, job, and company satisfaction performance. You can do this by conducting a survey or via other means.

Organize Team Buildings

Once a month, you can do “office day out” working outside of your normal working space or have lunch in a new place. Conduct specialized workshops. Informal learning is also a tribute to employee development. Invite coaches and active mentors to the company.

Exercises Against Burnout

When you have realized that you’re burning out, the easiest way to start coping with it is to conduct a mental experiment. I’d like to offer two examples of such a practice: one for yourself and another one for the team.

Personal — “I Am 70 Years Old”

Let’s say you are dealing with some personal problem. Find a quiet, cozy place at home. Sit back more comfortably, close your eyes, and imagine what you will be like at 70. Try to see as much detail as possible. How are you dressed? What do you do? What environment are you in? Who is next to you? Think from the perspective of a 70-year-old: what is important to you now? What are your values? Now ask yourself: Is this issue just as important to you, a 70-year-old-person, as it is for you today? After the answer is found, open your eyes and ponder: what needs to be rebuilt in order not to lose really important goals? Repeat the exercise in case a difficulty appears. This will help you to always direct your efforts towards the realization of the truly significant things.

Team Exercise “Optimists”

If your team has faced a negative working experience, brainstorm together after it’s over. As your colleagues to name the positive aspects of what happened. The content is not important here. The main thing is the overall positive attitude. For example, you didn’t manage to deliver the result on time, the customer was unsatisfied, but you gained a lot of new skills working on this project. The goal of the exercise is to get used to thinking positively and teach your teams to do so. This will make it easier to deal with problems, reduce stress levels, and make your work more fun.

We are all people, and physically we may not be able to keep up with something. This is fine. Don’t beat yourself up for the slightest mistake at work. Build beautiful temples instead of carrying heavy wheelbarrows. Shine bright with your ideas, but don’t burn out.

Tired manager at work -DepositPhotos

Marina Varasova

Marina Varasova

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